Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Supermarkets: a new totalitarianism?

Just a few days ago, the city of Bristol saw rioting for the first time since the St Paul’s riots kicked off back in April 1980.

It wasn’t triggered by ncreasing racial tension, poor housing and alienation of black youth.

It didn’t start because of the government’s cuts to public services or as a wave of radical republicanism in the face of media hysteria about the impending marriage of the heir to the throne.

The cause was simply the scheduled opening of a new Tesco Express in an area of the city that is known for being a bit ‘counter culture’, which outraged commentators in the days since have told us really means People Who Take Drugs, which in turn neatly implies that the local reaction can simply be dismissed as having no justification.

But what on Earth would cause such a response to the opening of a small supermarket?


In 1950, supermarkets in the UK had approximately 20% of the country’s grocery shop, while independents and cooperatives had approximately 80%.

By 1990, in just 40 years, this was almost reversed.

In early 2007, when Joanna Blythman updated Shopped: the shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets (first edition, 2004), Tesco alone had 32% of the country’s total grocery shop.

In the interim, as independent businesses, farmers and other producers have gone out of business, the wide, natural variety of what we grow to eat in our own country has been massively reduced: which as anyone who knows that one of the central causes of the Irish Potato Famine was the dependence on a single type of potato will know, is not A Good Thing. And contrary to the claims of supermarkets’ defenders, it is not indicative of choice either.

For some time, many people have had the idea that there are problems with what has happened – phrases and words such as ‘clone town’, ‘trolley town’ and ‘Tescopoly’ have found their way into the language for a reason – but Blythman does a very good job of putting flesh on the bones of the sentiments that accompany such linguistic newcomers.

Over several years, the Competition Commission has made a number of attempts to uncover the truth about the relationships between the big supermarkets (those with a minimum of 8% of the nationwide market) and their suppliers, but it found that most were too fearful to talk, except under the protection of complete anonymity.

Blythman herself later found the same thing.

But the stories are the same, with the large multiples:

  • driving down the price paid to the producer (including farmers) – not once, but time and time and time again;

  • finding all sorts of ‘creative’ ways to hand costs back to the suppliers (such as handing back ordered goods after incorrect forecasting by the supermarkets of the quantities of a product required by the supermarkets themselves);

  • inding all sorts of ways to charge the producer for things (such as in-store promotions);

  • delisting suppliers for next to no proper reason with no proper warning;

  • refusing to give suppliers proper, written contracts.

  • Supermarket buyers regularly reject produce that is perfectly okay – cauliflowers that ‘are not white enough’ is just one example from an anonymous farmer, while Ginny Mayall, an organic farmer from Shropshire, is quoted as telling BBC Good Food magazine that she was informed by a supermarket that she supplied that they wanted bigger potatoes. So she planted some. Then they said the potatoes were too big – and rejected them. It cost her £30,000 at a stroke. They were fed to cattle.

    And all this is without mentioning the issue of quality. We may already know that supermarkets are obsessed with the cosmetic appearance of fresh produce over its taste – the Elsanta strawberry is a perfect illustration of this – but the book contains plenty of further illustrations, from tasteless but visually ‘perfect’ tomatoes to experiments to breed any russet out of Cox apples.

    And then there are the suppliers who have been specifically told to cut quality – because it’s too expensive.

    Producers in the developing world fare no better than those over here.

    But Blythman also explores the issue of the damage that supermarkets have done to our culinary heritage and to our ability to cook or even understand food.

    In 2003, Tesco’s own press department issued – with a breathtaking lack of self-awareness – the news that only 17% of those aged between 21 and 35 had heard of common cuts such as briskets and loin, let alone knew what to do with them; those aged between 36 and 50 did better with 68%, but the 51 to 70-year olds came out tops by some way.

    It’s hardly any surprise. As Blythman points out, younger shoppers have had less chance to experience independent butchers (ones with staff that actually know something about the full range of cuts, unlike supermarket staff who tend to be bumped from department to department and have very little such knowledge).

    Supermarkets do not employ – as a general rule – properly trained butchers (or fishmongers). Blythman’s own experiments in stores around the UK reveal that it’s difficult to get anything other than what is already on display, and almost never anyone who could prepare a cut for you.

    This is just one illustration of how the claim that supermarkets provide choice is a myth. They provide what they want to provide.

    Supermarkets, she points out, deliberately stock primarily prime cuts. And they also deliberately stock lots and lots of ready-made meals. There’s a reason for this – or rather, a number of reasons.

    The book quotes suppliers explaining that supermarkets don’t actually like dealing with fresh produce: it has a limited shelf life and is delicate, for starters. But it’s also nowhere near as profitable as a product that has had ‘valued added’.

    It’s easy to see why ready meals have such added value – you can charge a lot more for something that’s actually rather small than you could for the individual ingredients. Indeed, I’ve shown this in a previous article here.

    But perhaps the most farcical example that the author provides is that of Sainsbury’s, which took the original convenience food, the apple, sliced it, dipped it in a vitamin C solution and bagged it in those pillow bags that contain modified air to, in this case, stop the flesh of the apple going brown. And then charged double the cost of an apple for it, marketing it as a convenience food.

    Does any of this matter?

    Well, the UK has the lowest food bills in Europe. Our food buying is dominated by supermarkets (that 80%) to an extent that does not occur elsewhere in Europe: elsewhere, supermarkets are more of a compliment to independent shops – not a one-stop replacement.

    We have greater, and rising, obesity – including amongst children – than anywhere else in Europe. The only place that is comparable in the West is the US, which also has rising obesity and a shopping landscape dominated by big supermarkets and one vast one.

    Any coincidence?


    But here we hit a little problem.

    If we start saying that, for instance, the treated apple is just a rip off, then are we also not also deriding the intelligence of the shoppers that fall for such marketing?

    In 2004, Dominic Prince, writing in the Spectator, conducted his own experiment. Buying the same basket of goods from a market and independent shops as from his nearest Tesco, he found that the latter cost him 42.98% more. Every little helps. He also concluded that several items from the supermarket were of inferior taste.

    “We are all being done,” he wrote. “We are being misled, brainwashed, cheated and we don’t even know it’s happening.”

    In the same month, an investigation by the Sunday Times found that supermarket shoppers, buying in bigger sizes in the belief that it saved money were actually paying up to 30% for the same product in smaller quantities. It found a ‘bulk penalty’ at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Safeway, Tesco and Asda.

    It’s no sneering to point out this con – and that is precisely what it is. The only argument that can be made for knowingly paying higher prices for ready meals is the time convenience factor.

    If fewer and fewer people really know how to cook from scratch, it’s doubtful that many would attempt to claim that as some sort of progress. Yet clearly is of benefit to supermarkets.


    But we've touched on the issue of the US, so let's look a little more closely at that and specifically at Wal-Mart – the US supermarket giant that also now owns Asda in the UK and has outlets around the world and growing (a model that Tesco is attempting to follow).

    In The Wall-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman (2006), the author finds many of the same issues that Blythman details in her work.

    He finds, like her, that the opening of supermarkets brings about the closures of smaller business over the course of the first years after opening.

    He found a survey that showed that Wal-Mart causes increased poverty in areas that it opens in.

    Wal-Mart’s downward pressure on prices pushes companies out of business and jobs out of the US. It also, Fishman concludes, teaches us a false way of thinking about cost in relation to quality.

    If Wal-Mart can sell you a $99 lawnmower, which fails to start the following year, you can just chuck it out and buy another. Why would you spend nearly $300 to buy a Snapper machine that will last for years?

    If Wal-Mart persuades Levi Strauss to make cheaper jeans to sell in its stores (Levi Strauss agreed to this because it was losing business to Wal-Mart’s ultra-cheap jeans), then what does that do to our understanding of quality and the cost of real quality?

    How many people now accept this as a routine way of buying white goods? No longer do we expect something to last for years, but pretty much accept that it will last less time than a similar product a few decades ago, and then we’ll simply buy a new one when it breaks down (and there is nowhere to get it repaired and no longer any parts being made with which to repair it).

    It’s not a particularly environmentally sound approach, never mind the long-term financial cost to ourselves. It doesn’t actually take very long before those $99 lawnmowers cost us more than a real investment purchase would have.

    But then again, decisions taken in the UK and US in the 1980s to de-industrialise and switch to a service economy mean that retail now has considerably increased importance to the national economy (there’s a reason that quarterly retail figures make the news headlines these days and that cheap credit has been made so widely available).

    We need to spend – it’s almost our patriotic duty. Indeed, only last autumn, a senior figure at the Bank of England urged us on to the high streets to spend, rather than saving our money (with negligible interest). Who’d a thunk it?

    But in a way, our spending is still not quite enough. The reason that the likes of Tesco and Wal-Mart cannot stand still, cannot say, ‘okay, we’re making enough profit, we don’t need to open ever more stores’ is that if they do that, their share price will be hit. They need to grow for the Stock Market.

    So when these behemoths drive other, independent businesses to the wall, it doesn’t matter economically. Unlisted businesses could almost be viewed as economically inactive: clearing them out of the way as the listed giants take their business is like today’s version of the enclosures, driving the self-sufficient into the industrialising urban areas to make them ‘economically active’.

    They are the insignificant collateral damage of the growing might of a handful of mega corporations.


    I suspect I’m not alone in having entertained a rather naïve idea that supermarkets, while far from ideal, were ultimately really rather benign. But that charge for growth – at any human or environmental cost – is far from benign.

    But as cultural commentator Jonathan Meades put it in his review of Blythman’s book, she “demonstrates the proof of what many of us have long suspected – that supermarkets practice a douchly tyrannical form of totalitarianism”.

    If you think of totalitarianism as control over the total, then it becomes clearer what he means.

    This is a new stage of capitalism, made possible by the de-industrialisation, deregulation and globalism that were paramount in the political and economic ideology of the 1980s, an ideology that has, for the moment, become the orthodoxy: ‘there is no alternative’.

    Fishman is nobody’s leftie: he wants to believe in Wal-Mart as an all-American success story; as shining with what he considers to be great American values. But there is great discomfort in his story as he uncovers the truth behind the low, low prices that he and others pay in stores.

    Just over a week ago, The Other Half and I dined with neighbours, one of whom is a Romanian who escaped from the Ceaușescu regime. Her family also got out, and many of them made their way to the US, where she visits them regularly.

    It was intriguing to hear her describe how she sees the US as being very similar to the Romania she fled. For instance, the culture of absolute dedication to the company – not least because of the fear of losing your health insurance (if you’re lucky enough to have any) – is something she sees as a form of totalitarianism.

    And perhaps one only needs to think of company towns to take that analogy further. Indeed, in many places, Wal-Mart is the largest employer in an area.

    How can you fight against it?


    In Bristol, campaigners against the new Tesco pointed out that there was already one a few minutes walk away.

    They got petitions signed (with substantial majorities of signatories against the new store). They did a survey that showed the same response. They took the legal route to objecting.

    But councils, as Blythman shows, are terrified of saying no to a supermarket giant. They’re terrified because they know that the supermarkets don’t believe in taking no for an answer. They keep coming back, appealing and appealing again, costing councils hundreds of thousands of pounds – money that councils would really rather not spend.

    And if they have to sweeten the deal with promises of a few flats or a new sports stadium, then they have the financial power to do exactly that, just as they have the financial power to crush prices.

    In chasing after the benefits (for their profits) of ‘economies of scale’, the biggest of these corporations have lost any human dimension.

    As both Blythman and Fishman point out, it’s not even as though shopping in these industrialised big boxes is even a pleasant experience.

    Blythman’s book is deeply depressing. Fishman’s is not much better, even though he desperately wants to have his faith in Wal-Mart renewed.

    But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says of the former: “Don’t read it and weep. Read it and change the way you shop”.

    • You can find out more at Tescopoly.


    1. So want to comment on this but dont know where to start!! I detest the supermarketisation of the UK in particular the tesco express invasion that sees the last remaining independant food stores, those we have turned to as a convenience stop when we run out of milk or need a quick top up of bread the corner shop, wiped away, shops without shareholders just owners trying to make a living.....I could go on!!
      My business is atempting to address some of the issues raised in this post...check it out

    2. Vigorously nodding my head in agreement!

    3. Thank you both for the comments.

      Closet Writer – I've added the link to my links panel. Good luck with that!